Tuesday, February 19, 2002

[2/19/2012] Still more "Impressions of Debussy" (continued)


This is part 1 of Jeux, danced by Alessandro Molin, Carla Fracci (at age 67!), and Silvia Curti, in an attempted reconstruction of the original Nijinksy choreography by Millicent Hodson, at the 2003 Abano Terme Festival of Dance. (The town of Abano Terme is 10 km southwest of Padua in Italy's Veneto region, more or less ringed by Verona, Vicenza, Treviso, and Venice -- here's a map.) Here are part 2 and part 3.


1. Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915)

At the end of his life, Debussy was midway through a planned set of six sonatas "for diverse instruments," completing only a Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915), this Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (also 1915), and a Sonata for Violin and Piano (1917). The combination of flute and harp was a familiar one, especially beloved of French composers. (I'm trying to remember whether we've heard the extraordinary flute-harp duo Berlioz incorporated into Part III of L'Enfance du Christ as impromptu entertainment offered to the Holy Family by the Ishmaelite householder who has just rescued them from the brink of death.) But the addition of the viola, sometimes combining with, sometimes contrasting, and sometimes opposing, makes for a distinctly different soundscape.

So much of Debussy's music is magnificent for the flute -- straight off I can think of Syrinx for solo flute, or that chromatic line in the introduction of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, or La Mer [all of which we've heard in previous Sunday Classics posts; see the "Sunday Classics Debussy" listing -- Ed.], or Pelléas et Mélisande. But if I had to pick one work, I'd go for the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. There is so much happening between the notes in the work -- the notes are moving forward like waves and the idea of taste and smell that emerges from it is unbelievable. Experiencing this power with the other musicians as you perform it is something quite intimate, almost like making love -- having an audience there is almost voyeurism. Sensuous and voluptuous, it's music that really gets under your skin.
i. Pastorale: Lento, dolce e rubato
ii. Interlude: Tempo di minuetto
iii. Finale: Allegro moderato ma risoluto

Members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (William Bennett, flute; Stephen Shingles, viola); Skaila Kanga, harp. Chandos, recorded September 1987

Nash Ensemble and friend: Philippa Davies, flute; Roger Chase, viola; Marisa Robles, harp. Virgin Classics, recorded June 1989

Montreal Chamber Players (principals of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal): Timothy Hutchins, flute; Neal Gripp, viola; Jennifer Swartz, harp. ATMA, recorded Sept. 13-15, 2004

This sonata isn't a piece I knew well, though I was surprised to discover that I own a score, which means that at some point I spent some time with the piece for some reason. (At least I thought to check!. It's happened a bunch of times that I realized I had a score only after I'd written about the piece.) The piece has come to be heard a lot more than it used to be; when I did some online research, I was startled to find listings for 44 recordings! Even among our three you'll notice a trend to broadening the thing. In the case of the Nash Ensemble recording in particular, note how flutist Philippa Davis and violist Roger Chase are able to "equalize" their respective tones -- in the opening of the piece, it's possible to not notice where the viola takes over from the flute (at the end of bar 3 in our printed page).

2. Jeux, poème dansé
(Games, danced poem) (1911)

We've already had one partial vote for Jeux, which composer Colin Matthews cited in his choice of Rondes de printemps: "My immediate reaction was to go for Jeux, which I couldn't live without; but the piece which exemplifies what I most love about Debussy is Rondes de printemps, from the orchestral Images. . . ."

Neither of the pieces by Debussy that inspire me most are for piano. The first is Pelléas et Mélisande because it was the no-return point for me. About 15 years ago I was touring in Asia. I listened to the marvellous recording by Herbert von Karajan [we heard the opening scene in last night's preview -- Ed.] in my hotel room and I began to cry. For several years I could not hear a note by Debussy without being moved to tears. Shortly after I wrote a piano version of Jeux -- probably the ultimate in his orchestral and harmonic writing -- which was another turning point for me, a chance to be immersed in the piece's architecture, to plunge into the score.
Jeux was written to be danced by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and had its premiere, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, on May 15, 1913, exactly two weeks before the company launched Stravinsky's Rite of Spring -- of course, one of the most famous, and scandalous, premieres in musical history. Here's the program of Jeux as presented at the premiere:
The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.

Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, cond. DG, recorded March 1993

Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris, Manuel Rosenthal, cond. Adès, recorded 1957-59

Orchestre National de l'ORTF, Jean Martinon, cond. EMI, recorded 1973-74

We hear a lot of yammering about the importance of authentic "style" in musical performance. True, all three of our conductors are French, and I'm sure that gave them a leg up, but it isn't some sort of imagined "Debussy style" that brought them to these remarkably different but all remarkably persuasive performances -- it's doing the performer's basic job of imaginative identification with the material, especially in the cases (once again!) of Rosenthal and Martinon.

3. Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

We've already had Pelléas cited by both of today's previous choosers -- and in the excerpt we're about to hear it should be clear why it's so dear to flutist Emmanuel Pahoud's heart. You don't have to agree with everything soprano Natalie Dessay has to say about it (actually, I don't agree with much) to appreciate her connection to it.

I think it must be the chemistry between the words and the music which makes Pelléas et Mélisande such a wonderful opera -- and unique; its music seems to come from another planet. I think this is the only opera I have chosen to do because of the music and not the character. Mélisande is an absolute mystery. I still don't understand her -- and that's how it should be. One almost has to intone her words rather than sing them, and because of this I believe you must truly know French to give the music what it deserves. It's such a beautiful language, but very complicated to sing. Pelléas makes you realize that Fench is not flat, but phrased in little waves. The music of Debussy is really like a language that resides in my body and my mind -- it's part of me.
The opening of Act III of the opera not only gives us some prime Mélisande but seems to me as good a "demonstration" chunklet as we could rip out of it. It's also a much easier scene to make play in the imagination than on the stage, where it's nearly impossible to get the physical relationship between the characters right -- Mélisande in her room on the tower, Pelléas on the ground outside -- not to mention the whole business of M's hair.

Pelléas et Mélisande: Act III: Scene 1 (beginning)
We know that Golaud and Pelléas are half-brothers, grandsons of Arkel, the blind old king of Allemonde. We know too that they are both sons of Geneviève, who -- given the circumstances set out in the libretto -- can only be the daughter-in-law of Arkel, having been married sequentially to both of his sons, and having a son with each (making the boys cousins as well as brothers!). Golaud, following a long estrangement from his family, has returned to the gloomy castle bringing along a mysterious, much younger bride, Mélisande (we saw their exceedingly unusual meeting in the opera's opening scene). Mélisande and Pelléas are almost immediately gripped by a mutual attraction but pretend, most unconvincingly, that nothing is happening -- for a while.

Act III is set outside one of the castle towers. A circular path passes under a window of the tower.

MÉLISANDE [at the window, while she combs her unbound hair]: My long hair descends all the way to the foot of the tower.
My hair waits for you all the length of the tower.
And all the length of the day,
And all the length of the day.
Saint Daniel and Saint Michel,
Saint Michel and Saint Raphaël,
I was born on a Sunday,
a Sunday at noon . . .
PELLÉAS [enters by the circular path]: Holà! Holà! Ho!
MÉLISANDE: Who's there?
PELLÉAS: Me, me, and me!
What are you doing there, at the window,
singing like a bird who isn't from here?
MÉLISANDE: I'm arranging my hair for the night.
PELLÉAS: It's that that I see on the wall?
I thought you had some light there.
MÉLISANDE: I opened the window;
it's too warm in the tower.
It's lovely tonight!
PELLÉAS: There are countless stars;
I never saw as many as this evening;
but the moon is still over the sea.
Don't stay in the shadow, Mélisande;
bend over a little,
so I can see your hair unbound.
MÉLISANDE: I'm hideous that way.
PELLÉAS: Oh! oh! Mélisande!
Oh,you're beautiful! you're beautiful that way!
Lean over! Lean over! Let me come closer to you.
MÉLISANDE: I can't come closer to you.
I'm leaning over as much as I can.
PELLÉAS: I can't climb any higher.
Give me your hand at least this evening
before I go away.
I'm leaving tomorrow.
MÉLISANDE: No, no, no!
PELLÉAS: Yes, yes, I'm leaving, I'll leave tomorrow.
Give me your hand, your hand, your little hand on my lips.
MÉLISANDE: I'm not giving you my hand if you're leaving.
PELLÉAS: Give it, give it, give it!
MÉLISANDE: You won't leave?
PELLÉAS: I'll wait, I'll wait.
MÉLISANDE: I see a rose in the darkness.
PELLÉAS: Where then?
MÉLISANDE: Lower down, lower down, in the garden;
down there, in the somber green.
PELLÉAS: It's not a rose.
I'll go see in a moment,
but give me your hand first, first your hand.
MÉLISANDE: There! There!
I can't lean over any more.
PELLÉAS: My lips can't reach your hand!
MÉLISANDE: I can't lean over any more.
I'm on the verge of falling.
[Her hair suddenly turns over while she's leaning thus, and envelops PELLÉAS.] Oh! Oh! My hair is falling from the tower.
PELLÉAS: Oh! oh! what is it?
Your hair, you hair falls toward me.
All your hair, Mélisande, all your hair has fallen from the tower!
Act III opening scene (beginning): Orchestral
introduction; Mélisande alone, then with Pelléas

Erna Spoorenberg (s), Mélisande; Camille Maurane (b), Pelléas; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet, cond. Decca, recorded August 1964

Elisabeth Söderström (s), Mélisande; George Shirley (t), Pelléas; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Pierre Boulez, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Dec. 1969-Jan. 1970

Micheline Granchet (s), Mélisande; Camille Maurane (b), Pelléas; Orchestre National de l'ORTF, D.-E. Inghelbrecht, cond. Broadcast performance, Mar. 13, 1962

Victoria de los Angeles (s), Mélisande; Pierre Mollet (b), Pelléas; Orchestra of the Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires), Jean Fournet, cond. Live performance, June 19, 1962

Anna Moffo (s), Mélisande; Nicolai Gedda (t), Pelléas; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Ernest Ansermet, cond. Live performance, Dec. 29, 1962

I went a little wild here with audio files of our portion of the Act III scene, not knowing quite what I would wind up using. I thought i would pick two or three and then link to the others, but in the end, what the heck?, the files are there, and nobody's forcing you to listen. Friday night we heard the opening scene of the opera from the 1964 Ansermet and 1969-70 Boulez recordings, and in this scene the Boulez really asserts itself for the strong casting of the title roles -- Söderström is a wonderful Mélisande and Shirley an outstanding Pelléas, and atypically a tenor one. (High as the role lies for the baritones who usually undertake it, the lie of the role actually makes it harder for tenors.) Unfortunately, the Mélisande is the weakest cast link in the two commercially released French Radio broadcast performances conducted by Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, one of the greatest of Debussy (and Pelléas) conductors. I thought the Colón and Met performances might be of interest for their lovely Mélisandes (and in the Met performance another tenor Pelléas, Gedda).


Roaming the landscape (and seascape!) of the imagination -- the full orchestral splendor of Debussy (4/18/2010)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Saxophone Rhapsody (cond. Martinon, Masur), La Mer (cond. Boulez, Rosenthal, Martinon, Masur), Three Nocturnes (cond. Plasson)
Preview 1: Debussy -- the man who heard the music in moonlight (4/16/2010)
In various arrangements as well as the piano originals: "Clair de lune," "La Fille aux cheveux de lin" ("The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"), and "Golligwogg's Cake-walk"
Preview 2: Debussy from "Syrinx" to Afternoon of a Faun -- or is it vice versa? (4/17/2010)
Syrinx played by Paula Robison and Jean-Pierre Rampal (videos) and Julius Baker. Afternoon of a Faun conductred by Manuel Rosenthal
Preview: Mezzo Susan Graham shares her favorite Debussy: "Clair de lune"! (2/10/2012)
Played by Aldo Ciccolini, Peter Frankl, and Walter Gieseking, plus Virgil Fox (organ), Angel Romero (guitar), and Jascha Heifetz (violin)
More "impressions of Debussy" (2/12/2012)
A bevy of pianists play the first of the Two Arabesques, "Reflets dans l'eau" from Series 1 of the Images for Piano, and the prélude "La Cathédrale engloutie"; plus the last of the three Images for Orchestra, Rondes de printemps, is conducted by Manuel Rosenthal, Jean Martinon, and Charles Munch
Preview: More Debussy -- a quick entrée into one of the truly unique pieces in the musical literature (2/17/2012)
Act I, Scene 1 of Pelléas et Mélisande conducted by Ernest Ansermet (twice), Pierre Boulez, Claudio Abbado, and Herbert von Karajan
Still more "Impressions of Debussy" (2/19/2012)
Three performances of the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; Jeux conducted by Pierre Boulez, Manuel Rosenthal, and Jean Martinon; and an assortment of performances of the opening of the Tower Scene of Act III of Pelléas et Mélisande


Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home